Tales from the River Bank.

Summer evenings are best spent near water, at least that’s my view.  Nothing gives me greater pleasure than wandering along a river bank, stream side, canal bank or even the sea shore.  Notwithstanding one is likely to be driven to diving into the water by the endless aerial attacks of flying insects, most of which are unseen or unheard, evening shadows over water are sublime.

Weeping Willow on Thames

Old Father Thames slips by under this magnificent Weeping Willow.

I have recently had several such encounters, in between an assortment of small walling projects and the inevitable timber hauling.

The river Thames is not a water-way I have much to do with, indeed for the past twenty years or so my contact with it has been limited to the occasional bridge crossing as I head into or out of west London on a family visit or, more commonly it seems, arriving or departing from Heathrow.  Earlier this month, and indeed connected to a Heathrow appointment whereby my usual summer migrant was heading home to America, I had a more leisurely encounter with Old Father Thames.

Not wishing to risk a nervous drive from the wilds of Wales to the chaos of Heathrow and the M4 in time for a midday check-in, I thought it best to get near the evening prior to departure.  In fact we decided to make the journey eastwards a pleasant countryside poodle and thus we set of early the day before and headed for Hereford and thence the Cotswolds.   I had found an interesting camping site on the banks of the Thames at Benson just south of Oxford and thus a scenic route through dry stone wall country seemed appropriate.

Hereford is usually a traffic nightmare with its classic historical position as a focus of routes and the single crossing of the Wye.  The current ring-road is a constant nose-to-tail crawl whichever direction one is heading and thus it is common for a circumvention to last well over an hour !  Our journey was even longer as we got stuck behind a large and very slow chicken-processing lorry, the driver of which was clearly in no rush to reach his destination.  By the time we had cleared the city on our eastward journey lunch beckoned, whereas I had hoped to be pulling in for elevenses somewhere near Ledbury !  Tewkesbury was my intended lunch stop but time had gotten the better of us so we drove on through Stow and eventually pulled in to the charming Cotswold town of Chipping Norton.  Naturally my fellow traveller felt immediately at home as ‘Ooos’ and ‘Aahhs’ emanated from her lips and joined forces with the dozens of other New World accents which floated through the ancient streets.  My, how the Americans love the quaint and quintessential Englishness of an old Cotswold town !

We took afternoon cream-tea in a typically adorned ‘salon de te’ and I have to say it was delicious !!  A wander around the town, stopping to peruse the estate agent’s windows and the country-wear clothes shops confirmed our view that this was not somewhere we could afford to live !  So off we set toward Woodstock, a town which occupies a small part of my history.  I drove into the main street, past the Bear Hotel and on to the entrance to Blenheim for a sneak preview of what will apparently be a little birthday visit for me… we’ll see !

Shortly after leaving the historic town we entered the white-water rapids of the Oxford ring road, its raging torrent of fast moving cars and lorries re-affirmed my ‘town mouse / country mouse’ status.  Fortunately we had a very short distance in that melee before turning south toward Benson and the campsite.  Let me say that it was THE most amazing little venue; a small marina on the Thames has grown into an idyllic chalet, caravan and tent holiday venue.  It has a lovely restaurant right on the river, an ideal place to sit and wind-down after a long drive.

Canadian Canoe at Benson

What a lovely way to canoodle down a river …

The river bank was a real nature haven and as we walked I said, “I wonder if we’ll see a King Fisher”, and at the very moment one flashed by !  It has been a while since I saw that beautiful bird with its iridescent blue blaze zoom along the water.  I am envious of people who manage to capture that rarity on a camera, especially a shot of the bird on a post with a minnow.

The bank-side path ran upstream toward Abingdon and along the length we walked there was such an array of birds, trees and views.  I had forgotten just how much I enjoy a river-side wander.  What’s better than a cold beer sitting next to the river watching the boat people go by.  Unfortunately some of those folk were just the sort that give the English a bad name and make me want to torpedo them.  But fortunately there were more of the type who I could happily wave to and sit and have a chat; “put the world to rights” as my Granny used to say !

Swans on the Thames.

Way down upon the Swanee river … There is nothing quite like Swans to set the summer scene !

A little way upstream, on the opposite bank, was a very interesting structure indeed.  It reminded me of a grand Elizabethan court and it was easy to imagine the great barge with the uniformed rowers pulling the nobles upstream to their grand residence.  The wide steps leading from the water to the elegant garden eschewed wealth and grandeur but I have no idea what lay beyond the roses.

Landing on the Thames

The grand landing on the Thames upstream from Benson; what’s there ?

The flat open fields on either side of the almost motionless river are variously pasture and set-aside, which is to say they have been left to go wild and hence are full of wild flowers, herbs and bushes.  Tremendous old trees stand along the river and in the hedgerows that run at right-angles to the water-course in mixed hedgerows.  This is the ‘Champion’ lands of medieval England, the great open fields of Domesday not enclosed until centuries later.

The history of the place was occupying my thoughts as I surveyed the species in the hedgerows – some of the trees were not what I was used to seeing !  Suddenly I spied a strange structure in one of the hedges; it was barely discernible and quite out of place.  I tramped off through ten foot tall Giant Hemlock and reeds (Bogart in the ‘African Queen’ came immediately to mind) which, minus my trusty machete, was not an easy adventure I can tell you !  Eventually the grey concrete walls revealed slit apertures and I immediately realised it was a Second World War pill-box.  Hidden in the hedgerow it was well camouflaged and even in the 1940s when the fields would have been high with waving wheat, it would have not been easily spotted.  It was in excellent condition and as dry inside as the day it was built.  There was a large aperture and several smaller slits, clearly an anti-tank emplacement with supporting machine-guns.  What totally surprised me was the direction it faced.  I assumed it would have been set up to face the advancing German army as it followed the Thames northwards from the London basin but instead it faced north as if the threat was perceived to be coming down river, very strange.

Pill-box on the Thames at Benson.

Hidden in the foliage of an overgrown riverside hedge, this large anti-tank emplacement was in excellent condition. Is it for sale !?

Standing inside the emplacement and gazing out through the slit apertures across the flat open landscape it was uncanny how quickly I was transported back seventy odd years; it must have been a scary outpost in the dark days of 1940.  I wish these old fortifications could be given a little more recognition and protection, after all they were put there to repel invaders !  I suspect everyone who built them, sat in them and those who ordered their construction were under no illusions as to how ineffective they would be.  But what an excellent place to tell the story of the defence of that part of Oxfordshire.

A view from a Thames-side WW2 pill-box in Oxfordshire

The now obscured view out across open fields toward the town of Abingdon and the bridge over the Thames from  pill-box number 307

A little further along the bank we spied a triple arched bridge, quite old, crossing the river and I surmised that perhaps the pill-box was to assault any German armour which may have crossed and began heading down-stream; who knows !?  But I thoroughly enjoyed my little discovery.

A thoroughly nice way to go to the airport and bid farewell to a dear friend;much nicer than a race through traffic, heart in mouth with worry about hold-ups on the motorway !  Following breakfast on the river we headed off toward Twyford and eventually did have to jump in the morass that is the M4 heading toward London. Within half an hour Terminal  4 was on the signs and I entered my least favourite car-park … How I hate that place !  Mainly because Country mouse is just not equipped with apps, i phone technology, Oyster nor Cockle cards, swipe nor credit cards.  I just got money !!  It seems nobody wants real money anymore !

A short while later whilst on my way to a small walling job on Gilwern Hill (between Howey and Hundred House in Radnorshire) another water-side encounter brought a smile to my weather beaten face.  On the road alongside a super little pond I found myself slowing while a trio of young goslings from the resident Canada Geese family idled along the road trying to find their mum whom I had seen fly over the fence as I rounded the corner.  The fluffy little grey birds waddled as fast as they could go but as it was uphill they soon tired and eventually, after about 30 metres, belly flopped onto the road.  I stopped and got out of my vehicle to slow passing traffic and then, once it was all clear, picked them up and lifted the over the fence into the rushes that fringe the pond.  Hopefully they got reunited with their mum and dad before nightfall or else Mr Fox will have got them !

Canada Geese young

Running as fast as they could go these little goslings of the Canada geese family which reside on the pond were trying to catch up with mum !

I am undecided about Canada geese; they can be a welcome sight after a long winter as they honk their way down the valley toward the small lakes to which they habitually return.  On the other hand they do seem to be increasing in number and they DO eat a lot of grass and that in turn means they DO deposit a lot of poo !  Maybe we should acquire an appetite for the meat and then we would all feel a little more comfortable with them.  And what about all those eggs !?  Now there’s a thought.

A week or so after my encounter with the goslings I was driving past the same pond and was amused to suddenly see half a dozen body-less long necks with silly little heads standing amid the rushes looking like those dreaded Meer Cats standing tall.  I hoped that the shorter ones were the three youngsters although I somehow doubt they could have grown that much in such a short time…

Canada Geese in tall rushes

Look carefully – they are there, peeping out of the tall rushes ! Come out, come out wherever you are !

The walling project was along the ridge which runs between Rhogo and Gilwern Hill.  It was a small rebuild of an old farm-yard enclosure which had been built back at the beginning of the nineteenth century when the farm was first established.  It may well have been an earlier Hafod or summer residence as it sits on the edge of what was once open hill shared by a number of farms that exist in the valley below.  The hill was finally enclosed in the late nineteenth century and the fields have been continuously improved to the lush green state they are in today but here and there are fields in which the old open hill grasses and herbs prevail and these fields are an absolute haven for birds and hence a magnet to bird-watchers.

A piece of farm-yard wall which needed to be completely stripped out and rebuilt

A piece of farm-yard wall which needed to be completely stripped out and rebuilt.

The stone is very fragile, not unlike the slate I encountered in the Elan Valley last summer.  Being a shalestone (Silurian) it tends to fall apart in your hands as you lift it off the wall and dropping onto the floor results in a large pile of useless fragments.  The particular piece had clearly been rebuilt at various stages since it was first put up and not in a particularly sound manner.  In fact several metres literally collapsed at my feet – thankfully not onto my feet ! – as soon as I started to remove the large stones that were precariously balanced on top.  Indeed I had surmised this would be the case so had made sure I stood well to the side to avoid just such an event. Such was the violence of the collapse it assured me my decision to take it all down and rebuild it, rather than attempt a piecemeal patching which had been my first thought, was absolutely the correct one.  There are very young children at the farm and it would only have taken one of them to try to climb onto the wall to have precipitated a terrible accident.  Walls are very attractive to climbing little people and often the adults do not realise  how heavy just one stone falling onto a small person’s leg would be.  The sort of total collapse I witnessed, where around a tonne or two of stone falls outward, could be fatal.  I always warn parents to keep their young ones off walls. Dry stone walls are strong and sturdy but they are not finished with a paved walkway nor are they built to accommodate clambering feet and pulling arms.   You would be amazed how many dead lambs and sheep I have uncovered whilst stripping out a collapse.  I’ve found two badgers which had evidently been caught in a fall precipitated by their climbing and  even a small dog which had clearly wriggled inside a wall, after a rabbit no doubt.  A stone wall weighs in at around a tonne a running metre, more if it is limestone.  Please people, take care !

Meanwhile, back at the lakeside;  Llangorse Lake that is, I was having a jolly time at an event to celebrate the 150 years of the establishment of the Welsh community in Patagonia.  My dear friend from Ty Mawr is setting off in the autumn to re-trace the journey that those early settlers took and funds need to be raised.  I’ll give a full account of the event and some history of the settlement in my nest post.

My last tale from a river bank comes from a little community not quite so far west.  The village of Llanfallteg is home to one of my sisters and each year the village fete is a joyful July event which has all the usual attractions.  Heads placed in stocks to be thrown at, hoopla, bottle stalls, plant stalls and of course, my little ‘Guess what these are’ collection of old farming artefacts.

Tools at Llanfallteg Fete 2015

The bottle of wine is the prize although it was quite a vintage; the top score came from the folks on the left, 6/10 which is actually much better than normal !

My contribution is a mixture of old farming tools, ten of which are in a competition to guess what they are or what they do.  Visitors seem to quite like to have a go and even though very few have a clue what the items are they pay their £1 and put down some really amusing answers !  A winning score can often be as low as 3 or 4 and many an entry ends up with 1 or 2 correct answers !  This year we rose to the dizzy heights of 6 correct identifications and the folk (seen on the left in the photo) are not even from farming backgrounds !  No sooner had I announced the results than a couple of mature farming ladies arrived at the table and knew most of the artefacts !  It is very noticeable that fewer and fewer of the ‘older’ generation of today have any recollection of the tools I display.  Ten years ago I would be regaled with stories of how an individual had used a particular item, how good it was or how likely it was that it would cause a cut; what that person remembered about occasions when he or she would have been using the tool.  Sometimes it would be a memory of the person’s parents using it or at least having it hanging in the barn.  Even back then it was the case that the age of the person who was telling me the story got younger the further into remote Wales I displayed.  Clearly modernisation moved slowly northwards and ‘the old ways’ were hard to shake off in the uplands.

It’s been quite a while since I had stories told me of using such tools and implements or of memories of parents using them.  Clearly the folk-lore around the old farming methods is disappearing as the last generation to use or see them dies out.  All the more reason to get them out and show folk I reckon !

Fete at Llanfallteg 2015

The Llanfallteg Village Fete was busier than usual, or so it seemed to me !

The British village fete is a national heritage event, it brings together small communities in a way nothing else does today.  Whilst it is often the case that the same folk end up doing all the work, the very fact that anyone comes out of the house and voluntarily gives of their time and effort, not just on the day, so that others may enjoy a day out is a matter that needs commending.  In a time when everyone is so busy, so wrapped up in their own travailles and ‘important’ selfishness, how nice to celebrate with one’s neighbours and friends.

I’m an outsider in that community but I am made as welcome as anyone and I enjoy being a part of the ‘team’ if just for the day.  The ‘Community Heroes’ do not get the recognition they deserve and it is often only when they have left the stage that it becomes apparent how much they actually did.

The big Community Hero in Llanfallteg has, sadly, departed stage right and gone to another community where his skills will no doubt be of immense value.  The village lost its engine, its petrol and its mechanic when Dave King passed away earlier in the year.  He was a quiet diligent man who oozed enthusiasm and zeal for all matters ‘community’.  He was immensely knowledgeable in many areas from technical innovation to history.  He was a ‘go-getter’ who drove forward grant applications, ideas and opportunities which all the village and its environs benefit from.  If he had a flaw it was his manner of just getting on with it and not delegating responsibilities for the multivarious elements of the community activities he championed.  Thus his unexpected departure left a lot of head scratching and tail-chasing amongst those left to carry on the work. “Where’s the key for …”, “anyone know how this works?”, where did he get that from?”, ” and so on and so on.  For my part I found him always jolly and kind and whilst the fete was a joyful occasion there was a gap that will probably never be filled.

Dave King, Llanfallteg

The photo personifies the man; jolly, efferfescent and a Community Hero in the Llanfallteg area.

Another pleasure in visiting the village is the wonderful river-side walk along the Taf.  It is an interesting area for both wildlife and history.  Flat open fields on the right bank adjacent to the village display a network of ditches and along the river bank itself is a large bank which prevents flooding – or does it !?  Some years ago Dave asked me to have a look at the bank and see if anything came to mind.  I had never thought it was a flood defence, that made no sense as there was nothing to protect other than the flood plain !  The network of ditches gives it away, it is a system of water-meadow management called ‘Downward floating’ which is to say that rather than damming the river with a weir and a sluice system to allow water to be impounded and hence flood back upstream, the water is diverted out of the river above the meadows and allowed to flow freely over the grass.  The high bank prevents the water from re-entering the river until much further downstream and the cross field and perimeter ditches empty the water once the diversion ceases.  It was a system well used by the Cistercian monks (there is a fine example at Abbey Dore in the Golden Valley of Herefordshire) to prevent the ground freezing over winter and thus allow early grass growth.  The great house of the Cistercians at Whitland had a grange near Llanfallteg and no doubt they made good use of the flat fertile land adjacent to the Taf.

Cistercian river bank along the Taf

The high bank is clearly visible not least because today it is well over-grown with tall hemlocks, nettles and willow.

I don’t know who the land-owner is but he is to be complemented for leaving the valuable grazing along the bank and and field edge to nature. Of course such a large wilderness along a river bank is a superb habitat corridor and even though the footpath that used to run along the top of the bank seems now impassable (and hence the good view of the waterway has gone too) it is a superb haven for wildlife.  Something my dear sister values enormously and I am oft regaled with the latest sightings… “oh, just another Kingfisher eh !?”

River Taf at Llanfallteg in Carms.

Sleepy flows the summer Taf but it comes alive after heavy rain in the Presceli hills from whence it flows.  But its only got Otters and Kingfishers …what’s the fuss !!?

July is fast disappearing, already the Royal Welsh Show is upon us and that, for me, is the turn of the year.  Before long I will be getting my own ‘community’ hat on and planning for the Beulah Show tractor run in early September.  August will not be a holiday month this year it appears.  I have some work awaiting my attention in the Ebbw Vale area and still two walls to finish here in the village.  One of those has been long overdue for attention and although I have begun the long climb back to the top of the 4 metre high retaining wall, it is painfully slow.  Never mind, as I always say, “Every stone put on the wall is one less stone to put on the wall”.  Welshwaller is nowt if not a philosopher !!

The only Tale from the River-bank Great Uncle Dick had to report was from that devastated waterway of the Somme as the offensive momentum took hold in July 1915:

Sunday 11th July 1915.  In Trenches.  Put up barbed wire (this went on for 3 days !)

14th.  Relieved by Welsh.  Put on Listening patrol.  Raining awful.

15th.  Got in very late – 2 O’clock in the morning.  wet through. Marched to West Hook

16th.  In Barn at night. Marched to Loi(?)

17th.  In huts all day.

Sun. 18th.  Non conformist Service in Field.  Marched 6 miles to (?)

19th.  In huts.  Orderly move to relieve Welsh in trenches.

20th.  Carry parties to firing line.

21st.  Carry parties.  Plenty of hard work.  Complaining to officers.

22nd. Carrying parties to firing line and relieved by Welsh.  Marched to Loi(re?)

23rd.  In huts.  Broke off from 1st & 3rd Mons.

24th.  Marched to Credeauville (?) and intrained all night to Douelle.  On Advanced party under Lt. Dunn.

25th.  Arrived at Douelle.  Breakfasted on road.  Marched to (indiscipherable)

26th.  Stayed at  ?

27th.  Paid at L… (still unreadable) 8 Francs.  Marched at night 8 0’clock to (?)

28th.  One parade in day.  Went out at night for a walk with (?)

* It is clear that the rain had affected the pencil/paper and much of the last week of July is un-readable.

29th. One parade.  Bayonet practise.  Marched at night to   Auch ….ville (?)

30th.  On Guard.  Working at night in trenches.

31st.  On Patrol at night in tunnels.  Lost Sgt. Griffiths and Capt. Brown D.S.O.  Came back to Claremond (?)

The diary for July is difficult to read but is also clearly brief and understated.  It was a time of hardship and strain as the German barrages and the awful rain kept up a constant deluge.  It is the brevity of the entries that give the clue to the increasing strain he is under.

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One Response to “Tales from the River Bank.”

  1. Whitney Brown Says:

    “Cockle cards!” More like never remembers to take in his glasses to make friends with the machine.

    What a lovely night along the Thames it was. Indeed a good day all around save the chicken lorry! Oxfordshire, we’ll be back!

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